Twitter is the only social network which punishes you for following a person you’re interested in
In an offhand comment on his blog today, John Scalzi wrote: “Weird to think some of you [i.e. his blog readers] don’t follow me on Twitter, but there you go.”
Which interested me, since I am one of those people: I’m an avid reader of Scalzi’s blog, but I unfollowed him on Twitter several months ago.
And it was for a simple reason: I don’t follow anyone who isn’t following me back.
For a long time, I assumed that this was the policy of most authors, but I was talking about it to someone at AWP, and he seemed to think there was something shameful about this stance, so maybe not everyone acts this way.
But I think that the design of Twitter encourages my way of thinking. Whenever you look at a user, their number of followers is prominently displayed next to the number of people that they follow, which provides a very clear and intuitive glimpse of whether they are more of a listener or a broadcaster. If they’re the former, then they’re a consumer: a set of ears. But if they’re the latter, then they’re obviously a person whom people listen to.
Something like this mechanic is necessary, since Twitter needs a way to signal that someone is a spammer: people who accrued tens of thousands of followers by following tens of thousands of people. (Although another alternative would be to limit the total number of accounts that you’re allowed to follow.)
But it sets up a weird incentive for someone like me. Whenever I follow someone who isn’t following me back, I tip myself further into the “listener” and farther from the “broadcaster” category. Which doesn’t feel good. Twitter is the only social network in which your social status is reduced if you follow other peoples’ work.
In a way, Twitter is a zero-sum game. Every time you follow someone, you add to their social status and reduce your own.
A bigger person wouldn’t care how they were perceived: they would just go ahead and follow all the people whose tweets they enjoy. And I think that is what most people do. I mean, not everybody can maintain a positive followed-by to follower-of ratio (although, since most Twitter accounts are pretty passive or defunct, it is possible for a majority of active twitter accounts to maintain a positive ratio).
But that’s not me. I do care. So my policy is to not follow anyone who doesn’t follow me. Which is not to say that someone like John Scalzi ought to follow my Twitter account. He has tens of thousands of followers, and he obviously needs to limit his feed to the ones that he actually wants to talk to. But my policy remains. While I would not be uninterested in reading Scalzi’s tweets, I refuse to sacrifice even an iota of my social status in order to gain the privilege of doing so.